Sunday Times March 8, 2009

Ultimately, our children pay the price for the constant erosion of African languages, says Mamphela Ramphele. Can you imagine a French child arriving at preschool being greeted by a teacher in broken English? Or a child in grade 1 being taught in English by a teacher who is not proficient in the language because her mother tongue is French? Welcome to the daily reality of indigenous African language teaching in post-apartheid South Africa. If language is not only the medium of communication, but also a means of cultural heritage transmission between generations, how are our children to know who they are and what heritage they bring to South Africa’s diversity?

School kids laugh

South African Airways, the national carrier, must be one of few state-owned airlines on which passengers are not greeted in a dominant indigenous language. African language use is restricted to one line or phrase, almost as an afterthought: Hambani Kahle! Tsamayang hantle! Contrast this with Egypt or Kenya Airways, where one is welcomed and taken through safety procedures in their dominant indigenous languages, Arabic and Swahili, respectively. If it was not so tragic, it would be comical how many African journalists at our national broadcaster, the SABC, pronounce their own and their colleagues’ names in an Anglicised manner. Tebogo, Tshepiso and many others become unrecognisable utterances as our young professionals roll their tongues awkwardly around names that should come naturally.

There seems to be a growing trend to downgrade the importance of indigenous languages in all walks of life in our young democracy. English has become the language of political discourse inside and outside parliament. Imbizos in some of the remotest areas of our country have been, over the last decade or so, largely conducted in English. Elites, young and old, seem to equate sophisticatio n with the use of English with as much of a non-African accent as possible.

What accounts for this trend? First, our constitution fudged the language issue by declaring all 11 languages as official. This allowed for English to be the de facto dominant official language even though, numerically, Zulu and Afrikaans are spoken by many more people at home than English. English has the advantage of being the international language of commerce and politics. But have we ever asked ourselves why Chinese and Japanese political leaders insist on using their indigenous languages? They talk through interpreters, although they understand and speak English very well. They are asserting their sovereignty as nations that are proud of their heritage. What about us? Second, our education authorities have ignored the basic principles of learning in creating a post-apartheid framework for the choice language of instruction. There is overwhelming evidence that learning through the first language or mother tongue helps to anchor learning in the child’s immediate environment: family, community and everyday interactions.

Children who are taught in the first few years in their mother tongue, while other languages are introduced as subjects, tend to become more proficient in all languages. It provides the anchor for better and deeper learning by linking it to everyday life and one’s own identity. Few people would advocate mother-tongue instruction all the way up the education tree, given the underdeveloped nature of many of our indigenous languages. But recent educational practice has created a tragic situation in which most teachers and pupils in poor schools do not have adequate command of any of the 11 official languages to be able to function well in society. The performance of our primary school children in numeracy and literacy is in many ways a result of the misguided language policy implementation. The World Economic Forum’s 2008 Competitiveness Report places us 132nd out of 134 countries in maths and science. Our own systematic evaluation shows that, in 2007, numeracy levels among grade 3 pupils were 36%, while only 15% passed both numeracy and literacy tests. Third, there is the misuse of democracy in implementing our language of instruction policy. Why put poor, illiterate parents in the invidious position of making a decision of such paramount importance without giving them all the available educational facts about the risks and opportunities of each choice? It is not surprising that parents of children in a rural North West or Limpopo school would opt for English or Afrikaans as preferred mediums of instruction in preschool. After all, they can see that the successful people are the ones who speak those languages, so why would they not want their children to join this path to success?


What is missing in the choices put to parents is a discussion about the fact that the pathway to proficiency in any language is made much easier by building on the self-confidence bestowed by pride in one’s own language and cultural heritage. Our current approaches alienate children from their cultural roots and make parents’ participation in the education of their children difficult. How can they participate in a process in which their primary medium of communication is rendered irrelevant? How can they help their own children learn when the language of instruction becomes a barrier to communication from the first day of school? An even more profound impact of this language policy is the undermining of the parental authority so essential to shaping the values and world-view of children at this stage of their development. Why should children respect parents who only speak a devalued language? South Africa is not alone in undermining indigenous African languages. Professor Pai Obanya, a retired Nigerian education strategist, suggests that education in Africa tends to alienate elites from their roots and undermine their capacity to be effective agents of change to promote sustainable development. “Education is mainly about acculturation, to be learned is to be cultured. Starting off an acculturation process with non-first language tends to lead to a situation in which the person could become knowledgeable but not cultured, and developing a feeling of belonging nowhere”

Elites in Africa are contributing to this trend by educating their children in private schools, where the teaching of indigenous African languages is minimal. Many see the inability of their children to communicate in their mother tongue as a badge of honour. I never thought I would hear my fellow professionals saying without any touch of irony: “Thabo cannot hear what you are saying. He only speaks English.” Or proclaiming proudly that their daughter cannot play with her cousins because she cannot understand “their language”.

The overall impact of the misguided policy on the language of instruction in our education system is leading to a slow death of African languages. Not only are our children not exposed to these languages early on in school, but the quality of language teaching has been substantially degraded. The curriculum requirement for languages set the bar so low that few would fail to get high marks – but they remain largely ignorant of the richness and nuances of the language. The experience my generation had of wrestling with African idioms, proverbs and challenging texts and grammar is a distant memory. The classical novels we read as students are out of print and few new ones have been published. Publishers have long given up on African language publications because of weak demand. African language departments in our higher education institutions are dying because of a lack of interest by students and academics. Parliament is hopelessly behind schedule in translation services for Hansard because of a dearth of translators, not to mention the challenge of making court proceedings substantively accessible to indigenous African language speakers, in line with our constitutional commitments. A travesty of justice is being played out in our national life.

This language question requires leadership to elevate it to a key public-interest issue. We need the government to make an unambiguous commitment to halt the slow death of our indigenous languages. Promoting their use should start with our president and his cabinet. Education authorities should do a better job than to pass the buck to poor communities to make a Hobson’s choice. Careful, progressive introduction of other languages, on a firm foundation of mother tongue in the first few years of school, will align learning to the cultural heritage of learners and promote the greater participation of parents in the learning of their children and support for schools. Business and other leaders in civil society have a responsibility to keep this rich heritage alive, too. BEE beneficiaries should help to salvage the rich African cultural heritage that is at risk of being lost in the next few generations. Church leaders also have a role to play to ensure that the beauty of our religious idioms and hymns are not lost.

I can only hope that we can all wake up before something beautiful dies on our watch. No nation can succeed in building a prosperous democracy without mobilising the heritage, talents and pride of its people. Ubuntu (humanity to others) and Batho Pele (people first) as values of our society can only thrive if anchored to a firmer cultural heritage base. To leverage South Africa’s rich diversity of languages is key to our success.

Ramphele is a South African academic, businesswoman and medical doctor